Like every large city, Rome has its share of homeless, mentally unwell and beggars among its inhabitants. In the case of Rome this reality is especially evident in the historic center (“Centro Storico,” as they call it here) and at the Vatican. The Centro Storico and the Vatican, of course, are both places heavily visited by tourists and pilgrims, day and night, so for those seeking help, places of possible assistance.
Rome has various programs of assistance for the poor, such as those offered by the vibrant lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, as well as Saint Teresa of Kolkata’s Missionaries of Charity and the Caravita Community of Rome, to name just three. Nonetheless those who live here or visit the city will likely encounter homeless men and women asleep on sidewalks, people with begging bowls or cups on street corners as well as mentally handicapped, seated in doorways or walking around, screaming at no one in particular. It is certainly one of the realities here and one gets used to it. Do they all receive help from all who pass by? Far from it and for the most part the needy on the streets are ignored or told to get lost.
The homeless, beggars and mentally unwell don’t seem to pose a threat to the general public, by blocking church entrances or grabbing passersby by the arm, for example, but they definitely are present and ready to ask for help. Likely too they are quite used to being refused. As far as I can see the most aggressive “askers” are around the Vatican. Perhaps the presumption is that faithful Catholics visiting the “center” of the Church will also be moved to help those in need.
I am aware of a nearby church whose pastor turns his church into a shelter at night, allowing the homeless to find refuge at least in the course of cold winter nights. It seems like an admirable offering to the poor.
This winter another parish, San Callisto, in nearby Trastevere, under the care of the lay Community of Sant’Egidio, has been keeping its doors open to the homeless (whom they call “friends on the street”), offering them a place to sleep at night. Food, beds, blankets and bathrooms are available to about 30 people each night at San Callisto. Supper is served at 7:00 pm in a nearby refectory, and then people can come to the church between 8 and 10 pm and must leave around 8:00 am the next morning. Church pews are moved to accommodate the lodgers for the night. Volunteers from the Sant’Egidio community assist the guests and also help find solutions to the material and health needs of those who lodge at San Callisto.
An older initiative of Pope Francis and his fellow Jesuits dates from 2015 and takes place close to the Vatican in a structure called “Dono di Maria” (Gift of Mary), in a converted travel agency, now a dormitory that can host up to 34 each night throughout the year. It is staffed by the Missionaries of Charity sisters. There are other shelters in Rome as well, in Via Ratazzi, at Termini Railway Station and San Gregorio al Celio, that are also under the care of the Missionaries of Charity. Both men and women are accomodated.
To be expected, there are specific regulations in place for the smooth running of these shelters. The Missionaries of Charity interview and register those seeking shelter. This takes place at the Dono di Maria (Gift of Mary) shelter near the Vatican. Those allowed to stay in the shelter can do so for period of up to 30 days. As at San Callisto church, there are clearly set times for guest arrivals (between 8 to 10 pm), a time for “lights-out,” sleep, then waking up at 6:15 am. Personal hygiene, bed-making and tidying up are expected and closets are provided. Each morning the guests must leave by 8:00 am for cleaning of the buildings before nightfall. Some may be returning guests and others new arrivals that night.
At the Missionaries of Charity’s Vatican facility, guests are offered supper in the refectory located in the Dono di Maria shelter before returning to the dormitory. Breakfast is in the dormitory and those staying the Vatican shelter can use the shower facilities available to the homeless under the colonade at St. Peter’s Square. Even a barber shop is available, run by volunteers. Apparently many barbers have volunteered for the work, including some from the national Italian organization that transports the sick to Lourdes and other international shrines.
A recent statement contains the following about the Missionaries of Charity shelters in Rome and really applies to other Vatican initiatives as well:
“All work (of making the shelters useable) was overseen and financed by the Office of Papal Charities, through offerings collected from the distribution of apostolic blessing parchments and the generous contributions of individuals. The Papal Office of Charities, together with the Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, is committed to financing the entire running of the dormitory.”
I should also mention yet another initiative to assist the poor and homeless in the form of a new clinic that is located near the Bernini colonade at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Men and women unable to afford basic medical needs can receive free assistance at the clinic, opened a year ago. This concrete sign of mercy in “Piazza San Pietro” was estsblished by the Pope Francis specifically for persons without a fixed residence or who are in difficulty. Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papel almoner, that is, the one in charge of the Vatican’s charitable projects, describes the clinic as “an indispensable service to the health of the poor who live among us” (from an article from “Inside the Vatican” Magazine, April, 2016, p.31).
All of these endeavors are encouraging to hear about and call to mind what the Servant of God Dorothy Day was once asked regarding her Catholic Worker movement assisting the poor in New York. When asked, “Aren’t you people spoiling the poor?” She replied, “Haven’t the rich been spoiled long enough?” Food for thought.
One of the ways the Vatican raises money for the poor is through an annual “Vatican Charity Lottery.” As one might guess, the gifts the pope receives (and likely does not need) in the course of the year, given by those visiting him in the Vatican, are such things as cars (“I kid you not,” as TV personality Jack Parr used to say), as well as bikes, watches, mobile phones, fountain pens, leather bags, hand-woven carpets, china vases, coffeemakers, and the like. These goods become prizes for the lottery. Tickets are sold at the Vatican Post Office,Vatican Museums and pilgrage centers near Saint Peter’s Square. The income from this lottery goes to help Rome’s poor in the projects described above.
Also worth mentioning is a guidebook, regularly updated, which the Community of Sant’Egidio distributes, not to tourists, but to Rome’s poor. Called “Roma, Dove: Mangiare, Dormire, Lavarsi,” which translates as, “Where in Rome to Eat, Sleep and Take a Shower.” The 250-page pocket book includes addresses of medical services, 40 sidewalk soap kitchens, 40 indoor eateries, 45 places to sleep and 17 places to shower or get a shave or haircut. The guide includes a pull-out waterproof map with simple drawings to indicate how to reach the places described in the guide. Its format makes it possible for the illiterate and those not speaking Italian to get to where they need to be, for food, sleep or cleanliness.
The Sant’Egidio Community estimates that there are 8,000 or more hopeless in Rome. Many are arrivals from other parts of the world, but also Italians, including many men in their mid-30’s, separated or divorced, without the family safety nets of times past.
Among the programs already described in this installment of my impressions of Rome, the Sant’Egidio Community also holds an annual Christmas dinner for Rome’s poor in the enormous basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pews are moved aside, with tables and chairs brought in for this special event.
(Information gleaned from, “The Papal Almoner’s Office: A Busy Modern Initiative With A Long History,” by Aleksandra Zapotoczny, Inside the Vatican magazine, March 2016, pp. 34-35).
Also, as I prepared to post this piece online, a nice article/editorial appeared on the New York Times online edition, called “The Pope on Panhandling.” It appeared on March 3rd, 2017, and I recommand looking at in conjunction with my essay above.